A tall, pale woman stands frozen in the middle of a busy workroom. She twitches slightly, a soft, intermittent popping noise can just barely be heard escaping from somewhere in her throat. The women around her are not perturbed by this strange sight. In fact, they’re quite used to it. That’s just Beanpole, they relent to one another – she becomes frozen all the time.
Beanpole – set in Leningrad, the first autumn after World War II – is about a young woman named Iya (Viktoria Miroshnichenko), alias Beanpole, whose physical and mental ramifications from being in the war cause her to commit an unspeakable and accidental crime, plunging her and her close, wartime friend Masha (Vasilisa Perelygina) into an endless snake of emotional abuse eating its own tail. The film is an unforgiving, multi-layered portrait of suffering from one extreme to the other; from mental trauma, to grief, to physical malady and inter-familial strife, no one in Beanpole is free from some type of horrific burden. But throughout the course of the film, until its heartbreaking finale, Beanpole finds itself hinged on one lie told to the next. A lie to make things easier, a lie to make the struggle less destructive; a lie shared selflessly from one person to the other, as we crawl infinitely into an unforgiving future.
Iya has been looking after a little boy named Pashka, Masha’s son from an affair with another solider who was killed during the war. Masha stayed behind to get revenge on the killer of Pashka’s father, while she left Pashka with Iya as his surrogate mother in the meantime. Iya was invalided out of active duty, but now works as a nurse at a Leningrad veterans’ hospital, tending to the ailments of other soldiers who fought in the war. Patients laugh about there being no dogs left because people have eaten them, lost limbs and aching bodies abound; a man named Stepan has lost feeling everywhere in his being, paralysed from the neck down, and things do not look well for him. There’s no use in acting like there’s a life for him after this, as the doctor scolds Iya for comforting him with such thoughts.
One of Iya’s frozen moments unnervingly opens the film, and it’s the one that leads into the film’s most horrific sequence. After a play-fighting fit with Pashka, Iya becomes frozen on top of the tiny child. A prolonged scene depicts Pashka wriggling desperately underneath Iya’s barely twitching body, her dead weight crushing him until his little fist no longer stirs. It’s this act that leads into the main narrative thrust of the film – the unsettling, parasitic and quasi-romantic relationship between Iya and Masha. Iya initially attempts to hide Pashka’s whereabouts to Masha when Masha comes to visit her, but soon the next lie is being told: Pashka merely died in his sleep. Masha – quietly deranged, semi-sociopathic, eyes wild with unhinged fury at all times – still blames Iya for Pashka dying in her care, and thus commences the bizarre path to her revenge.
Masha dementedly coerces Iya into carrying a child for her, as Masha has been rendered sterile from a shrapnel injury to her pelvis. But it’s difficult for all to conceive children during these times, even after Masha blackmails the hospital’s head doctor into forcing himself onto Iya. Indeed, the film quite feels like an endless stream of misery and torment, but an exceedingly compelling one nonetheless, and which never once feels exploitative and without purpose. Darkness permeates both in text and in cinematography, a sweeping blanket of stark emptiness abounding in even the most densely depopulated of scenes. Viktoria Miroshnichenko and Vasilisa Perelygina both prove themselves as performers to be reckoned with, Perelygina a natural at conveying the twisted, grief-stricken selfishness of Masha’s desperation to be a mother again, Miroshnichenko’s shy, awkward Iya a heartbreaking presence to behold.
Iya lies to Masha that she was able to become pregnant by the doctor, but before that, Masha had lied to everyone about Pashka being Iya’s son. And Iya lied about how Pashka died, and Iya lies to Stepan about his potential for recovery. And when Masha’s eventual boyfriend, Sasha (Igor Shirokov), takes Masha to meet his wealthy, disapproving family, his mother unloads herself of the truth about her son to Masha, his hopeful bride-to-be. Lies are told to make things easier, as Iya concocts one last lie for Masha as the two broken friends weep and embrace while sharing the collective delusion Iya has formed for the two of them. Even beyond the incomprehensible trauma begotten from war, lies are sometimes the only antidote to the truth of our own atrocities.
Beanpole is a relentless portrait of human cruelty, but also of these little sins we commit to help us forget that it exists.
by Brianna Zigler
Brianna Zigler is a graduate in Film-Video and Writing from Penn State University with big plans and not a lot of planning. She loves horror, absurdism, Twin Peaks, is a die-hard Wes Anderson fan, and currently has almost 250 movies in her watchlist. Her favorite films are What We Do in the Shadows, A Serious Man, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Swiss Army Man, and Suspiria. You can follow her on Twitter @briannazigs